Category Archives: Science Communication

Shades of Translation

I was playing Codenames with some friends, a game about giving one-word clues to multi-word answers. I wanted to hint at “undertaker” and “march”, so I figured I’d do “funeral march”. Since that’s two words, I needed one word that meant something similar. I went with dirge, then immediately regretted it as my teammates spent the better part of two minutes trying to figure out what it meant. In the end they went with “slug”.


A dirge in its natural habitat.

If I had gone for requiem instead, we would have won. Heck, if I had just used “funeral”, we would have had a fighting chance. I had assumed my team knew the same words I did: they were also native English speakers, also nerds, etc. But the words they knew were still a shade different from the words I knew, and that made the difference.

When communicating science, you have to adapt to your audience. Knowing this, it’s still tempting to go for a shortcut. You list a few possible audiences, like “physicists”, or “children”, and then just make a standard explanation for each. This works pretty well…until it doesn’t, and your audience assumes a “dirge” is a type of slug.

In reality, each audience is different. Rather than just memorizing “translations” for a few specific groups, you need to pay attention to the shades of understanding in between.

On Wednesdays, Perimeter holds an Interdisciplinary Lunch. They cover a table with brown paper (for writing on) and impose one rule: you can’t sit next to someone in the same field.

This week, I sat next to an older fellow I hadn’t met before. He asked me what I did, and I gave my “standard physicist explanation”. This tends to be pretty heavy on jargon: while I don’t go too deep into my sub-field’s lingo, I don’t want to risk “talking down” to a physicist I don’t know. The end result is that I have to notice those “shades” of understanding as I go, hoping to get enough questions to change course if I need to.

Then I asked him what he did, and he patiently walked me through it. His explanation was more gradual: less worried about talking down to me, he was able to build up the background around his work, and the history of who worked on what. It was a bit humbling, to see the sort of honed explanation a person can build after telling variations on the same story for years.

In the end, we both had to adapt to what the other understood, to change course when our story wasn’t getting through. Neither of us could stick with the “standard physicist explanation” all the way to the end. Both of us had to shift from one shade to another, improving our translation.

Popularization as News, Popularization as Signpost

Lubos Motl has responded to my post from last week about the recent Caltech short, Quantum is Calling. His response is pretty much exactly what you’d expect, including the cameos by Salma Hayek and Kaley Cuoco.

The only surprise was his lack of concern for accuracy. Quantum is Calling got the conjecture it was trying to popularize almost precisely backwards. I was expecting that to bother him, at least a little.

Should it bother you?

That depends on what you think Quantum is Calling is trying to do.

Science popularization, even good science popularization, tends to get things wrong. Some of that is inevitable, a result of translating complex concepts to a wider audience.

Sometimes, though, you can’t really chalk it up to translation. Interstellar had some extremely accurate visualizations of black holes, but it also had an extremely silly love-powered tesseract. That wasn’t their attempt to convey some subtle scientific truth, it was just meant to sound cool.

And the thing is, that’s not a bad thing to do. For a certain kind of piece, sounding cool really is the point.

Imagine being an explorer. You travel out into the wilderness and find a beautiful waterfall.



How do you tell people about it?

One option is the press. The news can cover your travels, so people can stay up to date with the latest in waterfall discoveries. In general, you’d prefer this sort of thing to be fairly accurate: the goal here is to inform people, to give them a better idea of the world around them.

Alternatively, you can advertise. You put signposts up around town pointing toward the waterfall, complete with vivid pictures. Here, accuracy matters a lot less: you’re trying to get people excited, knowing that as they get closer they can get more detailed information.

In science popularization, the “news” here isn’t just news. It’s also blog posts, press releases, and public lectures. It’s the part of science popularization that’s supposed to keep people informed, and it’s one that we hope is mostly accurate, at least as far as possible.

The “signposts”, meanwhile, are things like Interstellar. Their audience is as wide as it can possibly be, and we don’t expect them to get things right. They’re meant to excite people, to get them interested in science. The expectation is that a few students will find the imagery interesting enough to go further, at which point they can learn the full story and clear up any remaining misconceptions.

Quantum is Calling is pretty clearly meant to be a signpost. The inaccuracy is one way to tell, but it should be clear just from the context. We’re talking about a piece with Hollywood stars here. The relative star-dom of Zoe Saldana and Keanu Reeves doesn’t matter, the presence of any mainstream film stars whatsoever means they’re going for the broadest possible audience.

(Of course, the fact that it’s set up to look like an official tie-in to the Star Trek films doesn’t hurt matters either.)

They’re also quite explicit about their goals. The piece’s predecessor has Keanu Reeves send a message back in time, with the goal of inspiring a generation of young scientists to build a future paradise. They’re not subtle about this.

Ok, so what’s the problem? Signposts are allowed to be inaccurate, so the inaccuracy shouldn’t matter. Eventually people will climb up to the waterfall and see it for themselves, right?

What if the waterfall isn’t there?


Like so:

The evidence for ER=EPR (the conjecture that Quantum is Calling is popularizing) isn’t like seeing a waterfall. It’s more like finding it via surveying. By looking at the slope of nearby terrain and following the rivers, you can get fairly confident that there should be a waterfall there, even if you can’t yet see it over the next ridge. You can then start sending scouts, laying in supplies, and getting ready for a push to the waterfall. You can alert the news, telling journalists of the magnificent waterfall you expect to find, so the public can appreciate the majesty of your achievement.

What you probably shouldn’t do is put up a sign for tourists.

As I hope I made clear in my last post, ER=EPR has some decent evidence. It hasn’t shown that it can handle “foot traffic”, though. The number of researchers working on it is still small. (For a fun but not especially rigorous exercise, try typing “ER=EPR” and “AdS/CFT” into physics database INSPIRE.) Conjectures at this stage are frequently successful, but they often fail, and ER=EPR still has a decent chance of doing so. Tying your inspiring signpost to something that may well not be there risks sending tourists up to an empty waterfall. They won’t come down happy.

As such, I’m fine with “news-style” popularizations of ER=EPR. And I’m fine with “signposts” for conjectures that have shown they can handle some foot traffic. (A piece that sends Zoe Saldana to the holodeck to learn about holography could be fun, for example.) But making this sort of high-profile signpost for ER=EPR feels irresponsible and premature. There will be plenty of time for a Star Trek tie-in to ER=EPR once it’s clear the idea is here to stay.

Words, Words, Words

If there’s one thing the Center for Communicating Science drummed into me at Stony Brook, it’s to be careful with words. You can teach your audience new words, but only a few: effectively, you have a vocabulary budget.

Sometimes, the risk is that your audience will misunderstand you. If you’re a biologist who talks about treating disease in a model, be careful: the public is more likely to think of mannequins than mice.


NOT what you’re talking about

Sometimes, though, the risk is subtler. Even if the audience understands you, you might still be using up your vocabulary budget.

Recently, Perimeter’s monthly Public Lecture was given by an expert on regenerative medicine. When talking about trying to heal eye tissue, she mentioned looking for a “pupillary response”.

Now, “pupillary response” isn’t exactly hard to decipher. It’s pretty clearly a response by the pupil of the eye. From there, you can think about how eyes respond to bright light, or to darkness, and have an idea of what she’s talking about.

So nobody is going to misunderstand “pupillary response”. Nonetheless, that chain of reasoning? It takes time, and it takes effort. People do have to stop and think, if only for a moment, to know what you mean.

That adds up. Every time your audience has to take a moment to think back and figure out what you just said? That eats into your vocabulary budget. Enough moments like that, and your audience won’t have the energy to follow what you’re saying: you’ll lose them.

The last few Public Lectures haven’t had as much online engagement as they used to. Lots of people still watch them, but fewer have been asking questions on twitter, for example. I have a few guesses about why this is…but I wonder if this kind of thing is part of it. The last few speakers have been more free with technical terms, more lax with their vocabulary budget. I worry that, while people still show up for the experience, they aren’t going away with any understanding.

We don’t need to dumb things down to be understood. (Or not very much anyway.) We do need to be careful with our words. Use our vocabulary budget sparingly, and we can really teach people. Spend it too fast…and we lose them.

Physics Is about Legos

There’s a summer camp going on at Waterloo’s Institute for Quantum Computing called QCSYS, the Quantum Cryptography School for Young Students. A lot of these kids are interested in physics in general, not just quantum computing, so they give them a tour of Perimeter. While they’re here, they get a talk from a local postdoc, and this year that postdoc was me.

There’s an image that Perimeter has tossed around a lot recently, All Known Physics in One Equation. This article has an example from a talk given by Neil Turok. I thought it would be fun to explain that equation in terms a (bright, recently taught about quantum mechanics) high school student could understand. To do that, I’d have to explain what the equation is made of: spinors and vectors and tensors and the like.

The last time I had to explain that kind of thing here, I used a video game metaphor. For this talk, I came up with a better metaphor: legos.

Vectors are legos. Spinors are legos. Tensors are legos. They’re legos because they can be connected up together, but only in certain ways. Their “bumps” have to line up properly. And their nature as legos determines what you can build with them.

If you’re interested, here’s my presentation. Experts be warned: there’s a handwaving warning early in this talk, and it applies to a lot of it. In particular, the discussion of gauge group indices leaves out a lot. My goal in this talk was to give a vague idea of what the Standard Model Lagrangian is “made of”, and from the questions I got I think I succeeded.

Fun with Misunderstandings

Perimeter had its last Public Lecture of the season this week, with Mario Livio giving some highlights from his book Brilliant Blunders. The lecture should be accessible online, either here or on Perimeter’s YouTube page.

These lectures tend to attract a crowd of curious science-fans. To give them something to do while they’re waiting, a few local researchers walk around with T-shirts that say “Ask me, I’m a scientist!” Sometimes we get questions about the upcoming lecture, but more often people just ask us what they’re curious about.

Long-time readers will know that I find this one of the most fun parts of the job. In particular, there’s a unique challenge in figuring out just why someone asked a question. Often, there’s a hidden misunderstanding they haven’t recognized.

The fun thing about these misunderstandings is that they usually make sense, provided you’re working from the person in question’s sources. They heard a bit of this and a bit of that, and they come to the most reasonable conclusion they can given what’s available. For those of us who have heard a more complete story, this often leads to misunderstandings we would never have thought of, but that in retrospect are completely understandable.

One of the simpler ones I ran into was someone who was confused by people claiming that we were running out of water. How could there be a water shortage, he asked, if the Earth is basically a closed system? Where could the water go?

The answer is that when people are talking about a water shortage, they’re not talking about water itself running out. Rather, they’re talking about a lack of safe drinking water. Maybe the water is polluted, or stuck in the ocean without expensive desalinization. This seems like the sort of thing that would be extremely obvious, but if you just hear people complaining that water is running out without the right context then you might just not end up hearing that part of the story.

A more involved question had to do with time dilation in general relativity. The guy had heard that atomic clocks run faster if you’re higher up, and that this was because time itself runs faster in lower gravity.

Given that, he asked, what happens if someone travels to an area of low gravity and then comes back? If more time has passed for them, then they’d be in the future, so wouldn’t they be at the “wrong time” compared to other people? Would they even be able to interact with them?

This guy’s misunderstanding came from hearing what happens, but not why. While he got that time passes faster in lower gravity, he was still thinking of time as universal: there is some past, and some future, and if time passes faster for one person and slower for another that just means that one person is “skipping ahead” into the other person’s future.

What he was missing was the explanation that time dilation comes from space and time bending. Rather than “skipping ahead”, a person for whom time passes faster just experiences more time getting to the same place, because they’re traveling on a curved path through space-time.

As usual, this is easier to visualize in space than in time. I ended up drawing a picture like this:


Imagine person A and person B live on a circle. If person B stays the same distance from the center while person A goes out further, they can both travel the same angle around the circle and end up in the same place, but A will have traveled further, even ignoring the trips up and down.

What’s completely intuitive in space ends up quite a bit harder to visualize in time. But if you at least know what you’re trying to think about, that there’s bending involved, then it’s easier to avoid this guy’s kind of misunderstanding. Run into the wrong account, though, and even if it’s perfectly correct (this guy had heard some of Hawking’s popularization work on the subject), if it’s not emphasizing the right aspects you can come away with the wrong impression.

Misunderstandings are interesting because they reveal how people learn. They’re windows into different thought processes, into what happens when you only have partial evidence. And because of that, they’re one of the most fascinating parts of science popularization.

Source Your Common Sense

When I wrote that post on crackpots, one of my inspirations was a particularly annoying Twitter conversation. The guy I was talking to had convinced himself that general relativity was a mistake. He was especially pissed off by the fact that, in GR, energy is not always conserved. Screw Einstein, energy conservation is just common sense! Right?

Think a little bit about why you believe in energy conservation. Is it because you run into a lot of energy in your day-to-day life, and it’s always been conserved? Did you grow up around something that was obviously energy? Or maybe someone had to explain it to you?

Teacher Pointing at Map of World

Maybe you learned about it…from a physics teacher?

A lot of the time, things that seem obvious only got that way because you were taught them. “Energy” isn’t an intuitive concept, however much it’s misused that way. It’s something defined by physicists because it solves a particular role, a consequence of symmetries in nature. When you learn about energy conservation in school, that’s because it’s one of the simpler ways to explain a much bigger concept, so you shouldn’t be surprised if there are some inaccuracies. If you know where your “common sense” is coming from, you can anticipate when and how it might go awry.

Similarly, if, like one of the commenters on my crackpot post, you’re uncomfortable with countable and uncountable infinities, remember that infinity isn’t “common sense” either. It’s something you learned about in a math class, from a math teacher. And just like energy conservation, it’s a simplification of a more precise concept, with epsilons and deltas and all that jazz.

It’s not possible to teach all the nuances of every topic, so naturally most people will hear a partial story. What’s important is to recognize that you heard a partial story, and not enshrine it as “common sense” when the real story comes knocking.

Don’t physicists use common sense, though? What about “physical intuition”?

Physical intuition has a lot of mystique behind it, and is often described as what separates us from the mathematicians. As such, different people mean different things by it…but under no circumstances should it be confused with pure “common sense”. Physical intuition uses analogy and experience. It involves seeing a system and anticipating the sorts of things you can do with it, like playing a game and assuming there’ll be a save button. In order for these sorts of analogies to work, they generally aren’t built around everyday objects or experiences. Instead, they use physical systems that are “similar” to the one under scrutiny in important ways, while being better understood in others. Crucially, physical intuition involves working in context. It’s not just uncritical acceptance of what one would naively expect.

So when your common sense is tingling, see if you can provide a source. Is that source relevant, experience with a similar situation? Or is it in fact a half-remembered class from high school?

Starshot: The Right Kind of Longshot

On Tuesday, Yuri Milner and Stephen Hawking announced Starshot, a $100 million dollar research initiative. The goal is to lay the groundwork for a very ambitious, but surprisingly plausible project: sending probes to the nearest star, Alpha Centauri. Their idea is to have hundreds of ultra-light probes, each with a reflective sail a few meters in diameter. By aiming an extremely powerful laser at these sails, it should be possible to accelerate the probes up to around a fifth of the speed of light, enough to make the trip in twenty years. Here’s the most complete article I’ve found on the topic.

I can’t comment on the engineering side of the project. The impression I get is that nothing they’re proposing is known to be impossible, but there are a lot of “ifs” along the way that might scupper things. What I can comment on is the story.

Milner and Hawking have both put quite a bit of effort recently into what essentially amounts to telling stories. Milner’s Breakthrough Prizes involve giving awards of $3 million to prominent theoretical physicists (and, more recently, mathematicians). Quite a few of my fellow theorists have criticized these prizes, arguing that the money would be better spent in a grant program like that of the Simons Foundation. While that would likely be better for science, the Breakthrough Prize isn’t really about that. Instead, it’s about telling a story: a story in which progress in theoretical physics is exalted in a public, Nobel-sized way.

Similarly, Hawking’s occasional pronouncements about aliens or AI aren’t science per se, and the media has a tendency to talk about his contributions to ongoing scientific debates out of proportion to their importance. Both of these things, though, contribute to the story of Hawking: a mascot for physics, someone to carry Einstein’s role of the most recognizable genius in the world. Hawking Inc. is about a role as much as it is about a man.

In calling Hawking and Milner’s activity “stories”, I’m not dismissing them. Stories can be important. And the story told by Starshot is a particularly important one.

Cosmology isn’t just a scientific subject, it contributes to how people see themselves. Here I don’t just mean cosmology the field, but cosmology in the broader sense of our understanding of the universe and our place in it.

A while back, I read a book called The View from the Center of the Universe. The book starts by describing the worldviews of the ancients, cosmologies in which they really did think of themselves as the center of the universe. It then suggests that this played an important role: that this kind of view of the world, in which humans have a place in the cosmos, is important to how we view ourselves. The rest of the book then attempts to construct this sort of mythological understanding out of the modern cosmological picture, with some success.

One thing the book doesn’t discuss very much, though, is the future. We care about our place in the universe not just because we want to know where we came from, but because we want to have some idea of where we’re going. We want to contribute to a greater goal, to see ourselves making progress towards something important and vast and different. That’s why so many religions have not just cosmologies, but eschatologies, why people envision armageddons and raptures.

Starshot places the future in our sight in a way that few other things do. Humanity’s spread among the stars seems like something so far distant that nothing we do now could matter to it. What Starshot does is give us something concrete, a conceptual stepping-stone that can link people in to the broader narrative. Right now, people can work on advanced laser technology and optics, work on making smaller chips and lighter materials, work that would be useful and worth funding regardless of whether it was going to lead to Alpha Centauri. But because of Starshot, we can view that work as the near-term embodiment of humanity’s interstellar destiny.

That combination, bridging the gap between the distant future and our concrete present, is the kind of story people need right now. And so for once, I think Milner’s storytelling is doing exactly what it should.